Arts & Culture

Last Night: "Into the Abyss"

By Erica C. Barnett November 25, 2011

Werner Herzog's heartbreaking, relentlessly bleak film about the death penalty in Texas, "Into the Abyss," centers on Michael Perry and Jason Burkett, two young men imprisoned in Texas for committing an utterly senseless crime: The murder of three people---a friend, Adam Stotler, his mother, Sandra, and Stotler's friend Adam Richardson ---because they wanted Stotler's red Camaro.

Herzog unflinchingly reconstructs the crime, using graphic police video (viewers may feel compelled to look away from images of blood-streaked floors at Stotler's house, where she was baking cookies when she was murdered), and candid interviews with those on both sides of the crime, including Perry, who Herzog met just eight days before he was executed in Huntsville, TX, where more inmates have been killed than at any other death house in the country. (Full disclosure: I covered the death penalty from Austin for several years while George W. Bush was governor).

In addition to Perry and Burkett, who is serving 40 years for the same crime, we meet Sandra's daughter, Lisa Stotler-Balloun, who feels a sense of relief at watching Perry die; Richardson's brother, Charles, a tattooed ex-con who describes Adam as the family's "golden boy"; Burkett's father, Delbert, who is serving a life sentence in the same prison as his son, and whose testimony about his failures as a father may have saved his son's life; and Capt. Fred Allen, the longtime head of the guard at Death Row.

Of all the interviews---which Herzog, with his dry German accent and frequent unexpected asides, conducts entirely from off screen---his conversation with Allen still sticks with me.

And Allen, who oversaw more than 125 executions, described "shaking" after aiding in the execution of Karla Faye Tucker, and deciding on the spot that he opposed the death penalty. "[I said], I can't do it no more. I'm done," Allen tells Herzog.

"No one has the right to take another life."

That's a pretty good summation of the moral reason to oppose the death penalty (other reasons, such as the fact that it does not deter crime and leads to the execution of innocent individuals, can be left to politicians and attorneys), and it's also the reason I oppose the death penalty. No one has the right to take another life.

Like Allen, and me, Herzog opposes the death penalty, but his film isn't a polemic against capital punishment. Nor is it an uncomplicated portrait of wrongful conviction; although Perry declares his innocence, you don't really believe him. Instead, it's a nuanced account of a crime, a death sentence, and the consequences of both, that gives viewers the breathing room to draw their own conclusions.
Filed under
Show Comments